How to Not Suck as a Leader
4 ways for new managers to overcome imposter syndrome and win team support
It could be that the term “imposter syndrome” was designed for the points in time when we first become leaders. I can’t keep a pot plant alive but, hey, the world deemed it okay for me to manage teams of high achievers. I can’t always be sure of what day of the week it is but we’re all okay with me being responsible for your professional development.
Cool cool cool cool…
Fortunately — after almost a decade of managing people — I can definitively say that we know more than we think we know! I know, I’m surprised too. Regardless of whether your introduction to leadership is a one-off coaching session, being a ‘buddy’ for a vacation worker, a mentor to a student, or being responsible for running a whole team, I’m sure that it doesn’t feel any less daunting.
For that reason, I’ve compiled some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten on the topic of managing people for your ease of reference. You’re welcome.
1. Decide What Kind of Leader You Want to Be
Uh oh, first point on the list and we’re already struggling. While this may feel like a philosophical point, it’s important and doesn’t need to be as complicated as it may sound.
Each year, I train many people who have been recently promoted to a coveted title: Senior Associate. Essentially this means these individuals will be responsible for leading teams, often for the first time. My advice to these new promotes is always the same: think about the seniors you’ve worked with previously who you thought were absolute rock stars. What is it that made them such effective leaders for you?
In my first year at my firm, I had a senior on my biggest project that totally blew my mind. Her name was Cat. Cat’s key strength was bringing a lot of positive energy to what was ultimately a really challenging project. She was managing around 15 people and somehow was able to do her own work, keep the project going, whip everyone else (including our client) into line, grab the partner a coffee and a toastie in the mornings, and somehow she still seemed to have endless time to coach little old me through my endless stream of stupid questions.
Ever since I worked with Cat, I decided there were several of her qualities that I wanted to emulate. Over the years, I’ve coupled those qualities with things I’ve learned from other awesome leaders. Hopefully, this makes me a well-rounded leader.
To decide what kind of leader you want to be, think of previous leaders that inspired you; what qualities did they have that you want to emulate?
2. Start Practicing What You Preach
It’s one thing to know what kind of leader you want to be. It’s an entirely different (and more important) thing to start being that person.
“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear” — Socrates
Want to be a more positive leader? Put a smile on your face for once! Don’t want to be the type of leader who people feel isn’t approachable? Then make time for chit-chat and don’t sit behind a closed door all day.
I often see high performers who start as really poor leaders. Why? Because it’s so difficult to relinquish control, especially if feel your team is not going to do as great a job as you could have. This is where micro-management (and juniors loathing you) starts.
Don’t want to be the kind of leader who micro-manages? Put a plan in place to coach before a task, and do pulse checks at 20% and 80%. Otherwise, leave them alone!
Getting away from bad habits is always tough. Guess what? Leadership is tough, too. Leaders who can learn and adapt their management styles to get the best out of their teams quickly stand out.
3. Have a Plan to Identify Your Blind Spots
I see all the time in professional services that some managers think they’re doing a great job because their leaders give them positive feedback. It’s a shock when you overhear a junior saying “I never want to work with him again.”
News flash: a project getting done on time doesn’t necessarily mean you did a great job. If your team hates you, you failed as a leader. If your team hates you, you’re likely to get less out of them and have to do more of the work yourself. The larger your team, the more difficult it is to keep delivering projects on time without a motivated team. When you can’t do all the work yourself and also sleep, the great feedback from your leaders dries up.
How do you know if your teams hate working with you? You ask!
Arguably even more important than feedback from your boss is feedback from your juniors and peers. Create a plan to receive upward feedback from your teams anonymously and be amazed at the things you find out about yourself.
It’s often a dent to the ego, sure, but if you heed the advice of your teams you’re likely to be a much more effective leader.
4. Don’t Be a Know-it-All
Leadership is a funny thing. The more I answer my teams’ questions with “great question, I have no clue,” the more my teams seem to approach me with questions!
As it turns out, it’s perfectly okay to admit you don’t know something. I’ve never received upward (or downward, for that matter) feedback that suggested me not knowing all the answers made me a worse manager. My teams love that I’m approachable and don’t make them feel stupid about asking a question by pretending to know the answer when I actually have no idea.
Two things are important here:
- It’s not enough to say “I don’t know.” The simple alternative which has done wonders for me is: “I have no clue, but that’s a really great question. Let’s figure it out together.” This is coaching and learning at the same time. Boom!
- The worst thing you can do at any stage of your career — but especially when you start managing people — is pretend. Do not try to pass off your opinion as fact and do not say you’re going to do something if that’s not your intention. This erodes trust.
You’ve probably read a thousand articles on “being vulnerable” as a leader. If not, let me save you some time and summarize: It’s okay to not know the answer. Admit when you’re wrong. Don’t bullshit people.
If you got to point 1 and decided “I want to be the type of leader who skim-reads” (respect) then here you go:
- Look to other leaders you’ve worked with and decide what qualities you’d like to emulate.
- Start practicing those qualities. It won’t necessarily be easy, but if you want to be known as a leader who doesn’t suck, you must do it anyway. Be eager to learn and adapt.
- Put a plan in place to get anonymous upward feedback regularly to identify your blind spots. The easiest way to know if your team hates working with you is to ask.
- It’s okay to not know the answer. Admit when you’re wrong. Don’t bullshit people. (Collectively: “be vulnerable”)
Being a leader can be an extremely enjoyable and rewarding experience if you’re willing to learn. Start with setting aside the ego and you’ll be a leader who doesn’t suck in no time!
Learn more about my personal approach to getting upward feedback and becoming a better leader here: You Know What Your Boss Thinks, but Does Your Team Hate You?